We have such a hard-working Italian specialist on my website, in the form of Walter Speller, that I don’t have an excuse to get to Italy or taste Italian wine as often as I’d like. But recently I benefited from the fact that the best collection of vintages from the finest part of one of the greatest crus in Barolo is not, in fact, in Italy but in Britain. So while Walter was in Italy, I went to the tiny basement of The 10 Cases wine bar in Covent Garden to wallow in 22 vintages of Marengo Brunate from Piemonte’s most famous wine region.
It is widely acknowledged that Marco Marengo and his wife Eugenia (known as Jenny) own two of the finest plots within the Brunate cru in the commune of La Morra. Those who love the Nebbiolo grape in its finest form, with its freshness, increasingly complex aroma and teasing combination of chew and pallor, admire in Marengo Brunate what UK importer Justerinis describes as “the quintessential La Morra style Barolo with its ethereal perfume and finesse tinged with a complex earthiness and refined but powerful tannins”.
The Marengo family has owned land in Brunate since 1903 and has two plantings in the middle of this famous south-facing cru on silty-limestone. The lower one was planted in 1942, a year when Italians must have had other concerns. The upper vineyard was planted in 1955. “We have a total of 1.2 hectares out of the Brunate total of 28ha,” Jenny told me. “It’s now impossible to buy land where we are.”
There has been a dramatic influx of outside interest in Barolo now that its wines have become the focus of international speculation, with Barolo the most Burgundian of Italian wine regions, having lots of vineyards shared between different producers. Land prices have soared and many growers in the region are pulling out varieties such as the local Dolcetto and Barbera to replace them with more fashionable Nebbiolo, even in sites unsuited to this fickle, late-ripening grape.
The Marengos own a total of 6ha of vineyard including some in the cru Bricco delle Viole in the next-door commune of Barolo (after which the region is named), Nebbiolo vines for a regular Barolo, a Nebbiolo d’Alba and some Dolcetto and Barbera. They had never before tasted such an array of vintages of their Brunate — 1997 to 2019 — at any one time. The wines were donated by David Brown, who arrived straight from his work at the wine software company Bevica, saying he’d been planning this tasting for 20 years.
Brown joined Justerinis in 2002, starting out in sales and ending up launching its current online sales system. He explained how his first professional wine trip was to Piemonte in 2003 with Marc de Grazia of Tenuta delle Terre Nere in Sicily, who was then advising Justerinis on Italian wine. The visit that made the strongest impression on him was to Marco Marengo’s mother’s house in La Morra. (Marengos’ smart winery was only built in 2011 and they don’t have a website.)
Trying the 2001 Brunate from barrel, he underwent a personal epiphany. “It made me realise that in my work I was in the right place at the right time,” he explained. He’d just married and bought a house, and decided then and there to buy some Marengo Brunate for himself. He began by acquiring odd bottles and storing them at home but very soon became a faithful customer of the wine, buying a case of every vintage en primeur and having it stored professionally. “And I’ve got double magnums of each of my children’s vintages,” he added proudly, “so I can serve the 2009, 2011, 2013 and 2015 on each of their 18th birthdays.”
The 2013 was the only vintage among the 22 (no 2002 vintage was made) about which there was the slightest doubt. According to some assessments, 2013 was the best vintage in several years, but the first bottle opened suffered from a tainted cork and the second was not as expressive as the other vintages, though certainly wasn’t disastrous.
What was extraordinary about the line-up of bottles was how uniformly excellent they were. They had many of the hallmarks of a fine Barolo — heady aromas, flavours of autumn undergrowth and something mineral akin to tar, with tannins present but not aggressive — but always with a finesse.
The point about Barolo is that it is not meant to be big and brawny. It’s an elegant expression of a hilly, subalpine terrain that’s a mosaic of different soil types, exposures and altitudes. Sheer mass is not necessarily an asset.
For instance, the 2018 has been viewed in some quarters as irredeemably light, but the 2018 Marengo Brunate is majestically energetic. The youngest vintage in the tasting, 2019, was the only wine shown that I would not happily sit down and drink tonight — though I would very happily squirrel it away in my cellar. The 2001, Marco’s first solo vintage, was stunning.
I had initially approached this tasting thinking that it would provide a useful guide for readers to the quality of each of these vintages in the Langhe hills where Barolo and its neighbour Barbaresco are located. But quality and character were so consistent that I’m not sure my tasting notes would serve for general vintage advice. Even the 1997 and 1999 offered unalloyed pleasure. The only vintages that were even remotely disappointing were the 1998, in which the tannins were just a bit too insistent (for tasting without food anyway — bring on the pasta with tartufo d’Alba). And also the 2003, which happened to be the only magnum, and which seemed the most obviously ripe, overblown and least characteristic of Barolo.
Also at the tasting were three Riservas with their distinctive black labels, 2010, 2013 and 2016. (The “regular” bottles of Marengo Brunate have orange labels.) The Riserva is made from a couple of barrels from their older, lower plot of vines.
Marengo wines are not as internationally lauded as the likes of Giacomo Conterno and Gaja, and prices (see box below) seem fair given the quality and consistency, although to judge from some of the retailers listed, the wine is moving into the investment class.
But, as in so many other fine wine regions, Barolo is suffering from our changing climate. Drought is increasingly a problem. Ski resorts are an obvious casualty of lack of alpine snow. Spare a thought for the thirsty vines at lower altitudes: we need to keep them producing such glorious wine.
All M Marengo, Brunate Barolo, with UK sources where available
£545 for 12 in bond MRM Wine Investments
£560 for 12 in bond Justerini & Brooks
£95 for a magnum Justerinis
£125 for a magnum in bond Appellations Ltd, £250 for a double magnum Goedhuis
Riserva is £320 for 6 in bond Justerinis
Riserva is £320 for 6 in bond Justerinis
£40 a bottle in bond Lay & Wheeler
£48 a bottle duty paid Focus Wines
£435 for 12 in bond Asset Wines, £500 for 12 in bond Justerinis
£275 for 6 in bond Justerinis
Tasting notes on Purple Pages of JancisRobinson.com. Follow Jancis on Twitter @JancisRobinson
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